Theories of the Real and Practice of the Ideal, Jamming, 24/02/2015

One of my regular commenters on the blog is a colleague from the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, Thomas Basbøll, a writing coach in Denmark. He and I have philosophical disagreements about pretty much everything we talk about. Probably our most profound disagreement is over the nature of reality; you don’t get much more profound than that.

Thomas retired his own blog last year (at least for now), but on one of my posts last week about the nature of objectivity and the ethics of journalism and communication, he wrote a few things about the nature of society and social existence. He distinguishes between things and people. Things are the subject matter of objective knowledge and material processes. People are the subject matter of subjective processes, including the social institutions that people create to manage their societies at large scales. 

Distinguishing a human ideal from a material real
all too often blinds us to the material causal power
of human technology and civilization, material which
embodies and expresses thought.
It’s a dualism that I’m not really cool with, in my own perspective. Mostly, that’s because of my thorough materialism: I’m not comfortable with making strong distinctions on the basis of substance, particularly when humanity slots into a category of its own. I’m not going to give solid arguments as to why this is the case and more essentialist dualisms are wrong. I don’t think metaphysical facts are of this kind. We can’t definitively say which are true and which are false by empirical investigation or deduction. 

I can describe a particular broad set of metaphysical concepts that constitute a general perspective on how to understand existence, and argue pragmatically for why it is better for us to make sense of ourselves and the world along these lines rather than others. This is basically what Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity does with ecocentrism, metaphysically, ethically, and morally. 

Given our current situation, a philosophical approach to humanity’s world that follows the general pattern of humanism, taking humanity to have an essence that makes it of a substantially different kind than the rest of nature conditions maladaptive behaviour. A metaphysics of our continuity with nature conditions more sustainable activity.

Thomas’ metaphysical distinction of things and people defines action as something different from the real, though I doubt that it is kosher to put them in a hierarchy of more or less reality, as has sometimes been done in philosophical history. He writes that “only materiality constitutes the objective reality.” Social institutions, being the creations of humans, exist as subjective (or perhaps intersubjective) idealities. Action in the context of a society (the only action possible) has a dynamic of obedience. But institutions don’t give orders that individuals follow. 

Instead, think of institutions as establishing the frameworks and conditions for social and political action. A social institution is an ideal entity that we understand, and what constitutes our understanding is our practice (or should I say praxis?), moving according to the possibilities for action that their frameworks structure.

A very intense Ian Hacking.
Thomas cites Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality as a key philosophical touchstone in this conception, that what is socially constructed is other than real. But I’d stand on the shoulders of another landmark sociologist philosopher as a touchstone for my developing my own view: Ian Hacking, who wrote that what was socially constructed was just as real as anything else, because human actions and relations are themselves real, material processes.

I worry that Thomas downplays the reality of emergent entities, entities that are constituted through relations. Because relations constitute all bodies, structures, and matter. I find it very retrograde to regard entities constituted through human action as somehow less real than entities constituted through other kinds of relations. 

Thomas also has some fascinating ideas in some older entries about the nature of language that flow from his distinction of the material real and the human/social ideal. Our languages and our ways of knowing the world, under this distinction, are traditions of action and understanding, a notion that he evokes Borges to explore. 

For one thing, the correspondence conception of truth as the assertion of facts is pretty inadequate in this model. But because traditions are ideal entities in Thomas’ thinking, so they guide and determine our actions, moving us to think in particular ways. And he may be right about the character of language and knowledge paradigms as traditions, but his distinction of real and ideal may encourage us to think that our models of knowledge are somehow disconnected from reality. 

Think about this implication of that disconnect: If we our traditions of methods to know the world are ideal in a sense that they’re distinct from reality, schiz between the ideal and the real becomes inevitable, almost a matter of definition. Being so deeply situated in our traditions as we are, the ideal becomes a prison cutting us off from the real. We lose the conception of our knowledge and social action as causal.
• • •
He slips and slides away from easy definition. Borges.
Thomas refers to Borges’ story “The Approach to al-Mu’tasim.” It’s the story of different ways that a particular story is interpreted. The subject of our contemplation is the narrative of a young man searching for an ideally good and holy man, and each of the protagonist’s encounters brings him to characters progressively approaching this ideal. The story ends with only a brief glimpse of the mysterious al-Mu’tasim.

Borges describes this fictional book as having two separate editions. In the first, al-Mu’tasim is described in superlative terms, but has particular idiosyncratic traits, clearly a person with his own life who has achieved much ethical progress. This al-Mu’tasim is barely glimpsed in the story, but we know that he is a real person in the narrative, with a singular history and identity, from whom we could learn. 

The al-Mu’tasim of the second edition is a pure idea. Each person the protagonist speaks with about him describes him as a reflection of themselves. This al-Mu’tasim is an image of perfection to which we can only approach while it remains equally distant. Such is the flaw of the unreal.
• • • 
This is one of the main reasons I’m glad that I take part in the SERRC. Adam Writes Everything will participate over the next month or so in a new experiment in book review writing, which I’m really quire excited about. I hope to promote it beyond just the circle of SERRC, spreading it to wider academic publications and forums. 

Beyond these experiments, SERRC is also a gathering place for people with remarkably diverse philosophical approaches, perspectives, and ideas to work on common problems. Our diversity cuts off unfortunate tendencies to philosophical groupthink that all-too-often emerge in communities based solely in university institutions and content-restricted journals. SERRC is the kind of community that I think will make genuine philosophical progress over the next century.


  1. Interesting stuff, Adam. The best place to begin, I think, is with your sense that my constructivism is somehow "retrograde". I am, in fact, pretty old-school about lots of things, so this wouldn't be surprising. But I don't actually think that "entities constituted through human action [are] somehow less real than entities constituted through other kinds of relations." Let me try to explain.

    Actions are not relations, but actions may establish relations. So too may events, i.e., happenings that are not actions, that have no agency. In so far as those relations are "material", i.e., relation between things, i.e., facts, then they are (on my view) "real". But if the relations remain social, i.e., between people, then they are not real. It's not important to how the relation came about but what kind of relation it is.

    Texts are great examples. They are a material reality, a distribution of black marks on white pages (or white on black as with your blog). But when we read them we experience them as the meaningful behaviour of another person. And here we do the text (and its author) an injustice by reducing its meaning to an objective fact. The meaning of the text qua social relation is always "ideal", not "real".

    So a book (paper and ink and glue) is not "less real" than a rock. But the meaning of the words in the book is not real at all. Reality doesn't even enter into it. (Borges says somewhere that book inserts an ideal plane into the real one. Something like that.)

    Also, I don't think the social, personal, and ideal is reserved for anything traditionally "human". It's only a question of agency and subjectivity. Toasters lack subjectivity, but cats and even flowers might be slightly more "ideal" than that. They are also real, of course. Bodies are not either real or ideal. They are both. "This is my body" is sometimes an assertion (a statement to understand), and sometimes an injunction (a command to obey.)

    1. Texts make for a really good illustration of your concept, Thomas. Although they also make an excellent illustration of my own approach to materialist metaphysics where relations are primary and reduction is laughable.

      You describe how we experience a text, as the meaningful behaviour of another person. Its singularity would appear to be a central feature of ideal relations and bodies. To explain them in terms of an objective fact, a set of propositions that exhausts all there is to know about them, is an injustice, and epistemically improper anyway.

      But that's only one aspect of what a text is, when we consider it as the expression of an author. Even as an object, cut off from this circuit of communication between an author and a single reader, its possibilities overflow its existence. Its possibilities of meaning vary with each individual reader, and the particular context of their own narratives, contingent articulations of each time, place, and history. Those possibilities are not themselves a function of the author of the text, or the reader, but the text itself as an object whose own complexity generates this constant explosion of novel possibility. It, itself, can act in the world in so many ways, exhausting even the power of its author to bestow its meaning.

      But that's the lesson of Pierre Menard, isn't it?

      The kicker of my own materialist realism (and the central perspective of Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity) is that this is true of all bodies. Everything can exist for us in terms of its factuality alone, or as an imperative demanding our response.

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  3. I'm not quite sure what we're disagreeing about, so I may be making needless trouble, but I assume that rocks and flowers also have possibilities that "overflow their existence". What we need (from you) is some examples of those "possibilities" that are both objective ("real") and social. I have a feeling that I would disagree with you about what we can count as a feature of "the text itself as an object". Certainly, a text's being "fiction", or even "in English", for example, is not such a feature, in my opinion.

    1. Glad I finally get time to respond. Apologies for having taken so long. What we're disagreeing about is literally the words we use to describe similar distinctions. You're comfortable using the words 'real' and 'ideal' to talk about the aspects of the world that emerge from social relations, and objects that are described only as objects (without participating in generating social meaningfulness). What I've read of your work at the SERRC tells me that you concentrate on problems that arise in this ideal domain.

      But I was raised in a philosophical environment that considered 'real' and 'ideal' very loaded words, where having a materialist outlook on the world necessarily meant you were very reductionist about what matter could do. This idea that humans have to have a mind or a soul (conceived as a separate and different substance from matter) to do what they do is a popular attitude throughout North America. So one of my philosophical priorities is articulating a materialist philosophical vocabulary of metaphysics and mind that is not reductive to some diminished notion of what humanity could do.

      Because of how my history, and the philosophical priorities that emerged from my understanding that history, shapes the way I think, and primed me to misunderstand what you meant by your distinction of real and ideal.

      But I do still think that phrasing your distinction in those terms could lead to genuine misunderstandings in how others receive your work. I've met a lot of philosophers of mind, for instance, who think emergence is just a way to hand-wave away talk of the mind as a separate substance or soul, that emergence couldn't be a genuinely materialist process all the way down. The old dualisms of our religious and metaphysical traditions have haunted us for a long time, and they haunt our society still.

  4. Yes, it seems as thought you want encompass all of experience in your conception of materiality. By contrast, I see materiality as one half of experience, to be distinguished from sociality.

    I suppose it'll always be up to the individual philosopher whether to cultivate a dualism, or some sort of enriched (non reductive) monism or, I guess, a indeterminately pluralistic approach to "substance". My dualism is anchored in the common sense distinction between people and things, or even between doing and seeing. It may interest you to know that I sort "mind" on the same side as materiality. It's the heart that belongs to the social.

    1. I guess you could call my own approach an instance of that last one you describe. Instead of an "interderminately pluralistic approach to 'substance,'" maybe call it a notion that being can become quite a lot, and it'll take a whole lot of time and a whole lot of complex situations to explore fully the limits of its powers to become. I sort of draw a line of primary influence through the history of philosophy of Spinoza, through Bergson, through Deleuze, and I'm carrying on that tradition, an ordinary Canadian with some ambitious hopes for long-term book sales.

      "It's the heart that belongs to the social." That's a nicely beautiful phrase right there.